Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

Praxeus’ foresight looks almost uncanny now, more than three months after it was first aired and who knows how long since it was filmed. The sixth episode of Doctor Who’s twelfth series, it sees the Doctor and her fam investigating an alien bacterium, the titular Praxeus, that feeds on microplastics, threatening to spread a deadly disease to every living thing on Earth.

The handling of its environmental message – viz., that the way we’ve contaminated our entire planet with a material that doesn’t break down poses dangers we may not be able to foresee – is a nice corrective to that of the heavy-handed and weirdly Cold War-reminiscent Orphan 55. Unlike the earlier episode’s oddly insubstantial warnings of mass migration and nuclear destruction, that of Praxeus is specific, actionable and educational without being didactic. And the environmental theme serves the story in an organic (hah) way. It’s interesting that Praxeus and the pandemic it threatens to cause is presented as a problem basically of our own making, in the light of recent comments from people like Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, on the link between novel coronavirus and humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitats.

But Praxeus does less well on the details of epidemiology. Bizarrely, towards the end of the episode we find out that Praxeus is sentient (raising some moral questions about eradicating it that go unaddressed) and that it has built a kind of den at the bottom of the Indian ocean out of waste plastic after being released into the sea by an alien spacecraft.

Why? How? This isn’t how bacteria work! If Praxeus eats plastic, surely it would be breaking it down rather than building with it? And why does it need such a space anyway?

The Doctor and her friends work together to create an antidote to the disease caused by Praxeus and test it on Adam, a handy astronaut who’s been exposed to the bacterium. “You need a clinical trial, a human body, and now you’ve got one,” says Adam as he’s volunteering for this role.

Again: not how clinical trials work. You need thousands of people, not just one.

These are nitpicks, obviously, and generally I try to avoid such Watsonian critiques: they’re rarely helpful to looking at what a text is trying to do. But now, in the midst of the most significant health emergency the West has experienced since the Spanish flu…it’s important to get these things right. It’s important that people understand how disease works, and that writers don’t misuse technical terms like “clinical trial”. Misinformation is a killer.

In other areas, though, I felt Praxeus was a strong episode relative to the first half of the series, with a strong identity and a single unified theme. The relationship between Adam and his husband Jake is touchingly handled – the matter-of-fact inclusion of LGBT+ people is something this series is getting right. It’s not clear whether vloggers Gabriela and Jamila are a couple, but I certainly read them that way and I think the episode gives us the space to do so. Praxeus isn’t as good as its predecessor Fugitive of the Judoon, but it’s a solid entry in the series.

Film Review: Love Actually

Lindy Miller’s piece in Jezebel says just about everything there is to say about Love Actually, viz., that “this is a movie made for women by a man” wherein the only expressions of straight romantic “love” on show are ones where men lay claim to voiceless women.

If you haven’t seen the film, it consists of multiple interlinked plotlines, all of them centred on an actual or potential straight couple. An eleven-year-old pines after a cool girl from America. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) crushes on his secretary. A writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who speaks no English. There are lots, I won’t list them all, but suffice it to say that none of them are particularly original and/or revelatory. Straights gonna straight.

It is a fact, though, that the storylines that come closest to showcasing actual, healthy love as it manifests in the real world are the ones where a romantic connection is missed or dropped; the ones that end unhappily from a traditional rom-com perspective. So: Sarah (Laura Linney) chooses her mentally ill brother over her workplace crush, which, in the world of Love Actually, is a terrible tragedy that dooms her to a life of spinsterhood. Women: men require your complete attention at all times! Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) chooses to stay with her emotionally unfaithful husband for (it’s implied) the good of their children, a sacrifice I’m not sure I can see any of the male characters making.*

What to make of this? That romance is incompatible with real life and real commitments? I’m not sure director Richard Curtis really means to suggest this, but it’s a compelling reading of the film’s worldview nonetheless. I’m particularly thinking of that bizarre subplot where Colin, who is everything his name suggests, heads out to America to find women to sleep with. The scene where three impossibly hot American ladies ALL find him adorable and invite him back home for a foursome reads like a dream sequence, honestly, so removed is it from reality. Oh, then there’s the subplot where Karen’s husband’s hot employee throws herself at him repeatedly, despite the fact that he literally looks like Snape. And then there’s the bit when a woman whose husband’s best friend has been creeping on her is FLATTERED rather than running away extremely fast…And then

Well, you get the idea. Almost the entire film is the fantasy of an average-looking straight man: filled with women whose entire world revolves around him (because LUURVE). And woe betide them if they care about anything other than him: they shall be denied the comforts of romantic male company FOR EVER! (Just as well, you might think, given Love Actually‘s conception of what romantic love is.)

And yet. Love Actually remains quite watchable. Doubtless that has something to do with the calibre of the actors involved – it’s one of those films that will have you playing the “now, what were they in?” guessing game – but I also think there’s something about the mildly unconventional shape of the film, the various intercutting plots and subplots, that holds the attention. There’s something for even the most hostile watcher to enjoy (for me, Emma Thompson; Bill Nighy; Rowan Atkinson in a cameo as an officious department store worker). And the whole thing is nicely paced, too, bringing those interconnecting strands together towards the end of the film to place the characters in a community of sorts. Because, you know, love is all around us.

Gods help us.


*I’m still not sure what to do with the storyline about an ageing rock star played by Bill Nighy and his manager, which is also quite sweet. I always read them as gay/bisexual, but I am assured other people don’t.

Review: A Song for Arbonne

Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is, you might say, a tale of two countries.

First, there is “woman-ruled Arbonne”: a fantasy analogue of medieval Provencal France which is run on the principles of courtly love – meaning that women have significant soft power. The Arbonnais honour the moon-goddess Rian. Then there’s Gorhaut, a wintry northern country governed according to strict feudal principles, where women are considered little more than chattel. They despise Rian and worship instead her spouse, warrior-god Corannos.

Recent political developments have given Gorhaut both the means and the motive to invade Arbonne. It hasn’t done so yet when the novel begins, but everyone’s very aware of the volatile situation. Against that backdrop, a prominent Gorhaut warrior called Blaise enters into service with an Arbonnais lord, and an old grudge between two Arbonnais noblemen (involving a lost love and a missing child) threatens the security of the kingdom.

It’s the kind of fantasy that is almost not fantasy at all: the only sign of magic is the odd dream and/or vision. Relatedly, and rarer, it’s the kind of fantasy that cares about religion but not at all about whether the gods exist. You could read it as a companion to N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon: both novels feature twin societies – one decadent, one more ascetic – who worship the same deities but in very different ways.

It’s also a novel with a strong interest in the intersections between the personal and the political – specifically, in the ways that political considerations constrain personal relationships. Much of the novel’s intrigue concerns married people sleeping with people who aren’t their spouses: in fact two of the key characters are more or less openly in a marriage of convenience, as one of them is a gay man and the other a woman who enjoys quite a lot of sexual freedom as a result. How do these characters manipulate the power structures they find themselves in? How flexible are those power structures? How far do they allow people to balance personal fulfilment and public notions of honour and shame?

These are questions that would, I think, be more difficult to interrogate in a modern realist novel: Western culture at the moment has such a focus on individual achievement and self-actualisation that it’s tricky to see how more public pressures are acting, though I think those pressures are still there. For instance, career success has become so bound up with the idea of personal success that the thought that men might want to take some parental leave to bond with a new child is almost a radical one (although that’s changing, happily).

Like The Killing Moon, I think A Song for Arbonne is functioning as a thought experiment – at least, if that’s not its main function it’s at least one of its primary ones. So it makes its own argument best, and you should read it! (I’m glad I disregarded my woeful experience with The Summer Tree in deciding whether to give this a go.)

Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I haven’t quite managed to get my head round Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a massive swords-and-sorcery-type fantasy novel set in a fictionalised Africa. James is primarily a lit-fic writer – his Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize in 2015 – and I think perhaps I’m bringing the wrong set of reading protocols, lit-fic instead of fantasy, to the text as a result.

In any case, the novel’s protagonist is a man known only as Tracker, in reference to his preternatural powers of smell. Tracker’s hired to hunt down a missing child who, in true storytelling tradition, may well be vital to the future of the kingdom. The problem, or one of them, is that he’s not the only one who’s been hired; alongside him are working a witch, a giant, a shapeshifter and others. Tracker is very much Not A Fan of working in teams, and says so, repeatedly, as the gang travel through enchanted woods, magical one-way doors,

So, plot-wise, the novel is basically grimdark fantasy. Loner fighter hates everyone and is cynical; gets paid to go on quest; bad stuff happens very graphically (content warnings for gore and rape). There’s even a map, and a list of dramatis personae at the beginning. (It’s worth noting here that Tracker is gay, as are at least three other characters, and the only time it’s a Thing is when they visit homophobic societies. It’s refreshing!) But it has few of the formal qualities of traditional European fantasy, apart from the obvious one of being written in prose. It hops around in time; starts before the main story begins; switches between first person and omniscient third.

Abigail Nussbaum suggests that these techniques are reminiscent of oral storytelling traditions; so that part of James’ project here is challenging the primacy of European modes of fantasy. And it’s true that it’s a great delight to visit a fantasy world that isn’t based on a sanitised version of Europe, the prevalence of which does no-one any favours and is pretty boring to boot.

It’s just…I don’t know what the novel is doing beyond that. I don’t think it’s as radical as it thinks it is – or, at least, as its author’s lit-fic roots would suggest. Which is kind of nice, given the fact that a lot of lit-fic authors who stray into SFF tend to act like they’ve single-handedly invented the wheel when actually they’ve done something that Asimov did better forty years ago. It’s nice to find a lit-fic author doing SFF well, and thoughtfully. I think, on reflection, that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is worth reading if you’re looking for intelligent SFF. And I’m looking forward to reading its planned sequels.

Review: The Girl in the Road

TW: child abuse, rape, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

Set in the 2060s, in an India that’s become a new world power and an Africa it’s in the process of colonising, Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road follows not just one girl but two: Mariama, a child displaced by violence from her home in Mauritania, who joins a truck crew heading for Ethiopia, where she is promised a better and richer life; and Meena, not really a girl but a young woman, fleeing political violence in Mumbai by way of the Trail, a floating energy-harvesting bridge strung between India and Ethiopia, where her parents came from.

Both are profoundly unreliable narrators, obfuscating the truth of what’s happening to them for reasons of self-preservation. This, combined with the particular manner in which their stories dovetail (they turn out to be related; I won’t tell you how, the reveal is part of the particular shock of the book), gives the novel a feel that’s much more Gothic than it is SF. Indeed, apart from the Trail and a couple of plot-insignificant near-future technologies (plus the reality of climate change, which is as much a present threat now as it is the stuff of apocalypse/dystopia), The Girl in the Road is hardly SFnal at all. And yet: the SFnal sense that the world is different – is, specifically, unrecognisable is essential to the novel’s affect. The volatile global socioeconomic and political context, the ever-present threat of climate change-induced tsunami, is important context for, and a reflection of, the characters’ uncertainty about themselves.

That uncertainty finds its expression, for both characters, in a moment of profound trauma, and I want to talk for a moment about how those traumas are handled. For Mariama, it’s her sexual assault at the hands of the adult woman Yemaya, someone she’s come to see as a mother figure and even as a goddess, associating her with the Yoruba water deity of the same name. The nuance of how this scene is presented, and of the specific ways in which Mariama is unreliable as a narrator of her own life, has generated some controversy. For me, this scene makes (heartbreakingly) clear how wrong Mariama is about Yemaya, and thus how damaged she is by her dislocation (which was caused by her mother’s rape by a man they’d been fleeing for some time). It’s easy to read it differently, though, precisely because Mariama doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to her and how Yemaya is taking advantage of her.

Nevertheless – if we are supposed to read Yemaya as a predator, another important question is: why include this scene at all? The bar for “do I include rape in my fiction” is high, and even higher, I’d argue, when there’s a child involved. But this moment is, I think, the moment on which Mariama’s story turns. It’s key to our understanding of her as unreliable: the point in the story when her self-narration becomes separate to the story of what really happened. And our understanding of the narrative she’s telling herself, and how it’s different to our own understanding, informs her whole character arc, both before and after her rape. Structurally, it’s an important moment, and it’s handled well.

Then there’s Meena. Meena, it turns out, is fleeing not from political enemies who want to assassinate her, as she tells herself and the reader throughout the text. On the Trail she has a breakdown which forces her to confront the fact that she’s beaten up and possibly murdered her girlfriend Mohini – who is trans.

This, I think, is much less well-handled. Trans people in real life face a far higher risk of domestic violence than cis people, and so, I’d argue, the bar for fictionalising such an event is similarly high. Here, Mohini only exists to inform the cis protagonist’s character development – and while Byrne doesn’t seem to expect us to have sympathy with Meena’s actions, she’s still the character with whom we identify most. Also, I get the sense that Mohini’s transness is there mainly to illustrate the novel’s themes of change, dislocation and fluidity, without actually centring her as a person, which kind of…feels gross? Trans people are not A Theme – if you’re going to tell a story that’s about violence directed at trans people, you should be centring their experiences, not those of their cis attackers.

To sum up: this is a novel about people living through profound change and dislocation, and the specific and often harmful ways in which they respond to that. You might almost call it a novel about modernity – about this interconnected world where cultural identities are becoming blurred and erased. (It’s worth noting that Byrne herself is a white American, and while the novel doesn’t feel appropriative in that sense, a) I’m a white Westerner too, so I may well be missing context, and b) it might be that it’s only because she is white that the book was published at all.) It’s a challenging book that’s not always easy to get on with, and that not everyone will like! Is it worth reading? Yes, given the caveats in this review – I’d also add to that list content notes for gore and abortion. As a Goodreads reader sums it up, in answer to a question about whether The Girl in the Road would make a good book club pick: “Yes, discussions…I can see fist fights breaking out.”

Review: Artificial Condition

This post comes with a disclaimer: I have not read any other Murderbot books (because they were not Hugo finalists). This seems to make a difference.

Martha Wells’ novella Artificial Condition is, so t’Internet tells me, the second book about Murderbot: an escaped security robot that likes TV shows and once apparently massacred a bunch of humans on a mining planet, for reasons it cannot fathom or remember. In Artificial Condition, it returns to the scene of the crime to try and find out more about why it did what it did, and why it can’t remember doing it.

So…this is a text that’s interested in two things, I think. One is the age-old question of what rights AIs have, and whether they’re people. This is interestingly modulated from the usual Asimovian models by the fact that Murderbot doesn’t have a gender: Murderbot’s pronoun is “it”. Which foregrounds how gender is built into our ideas of personhood quite effectively: typically, we use “it” for things, not people. Yet Murderbot is a person. Should it have to engage with gender, a concept it sees as meaningless, just to be recognised as such? This feels like a really topical take on the question of AI sentience and associated debates about thingness and difference and who gets to have rights. It’s also interesting to compare this usage to the servitors in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy: they are sentient “its” too, but aren’t humanoid in the way that Murderbot is, and so I think don’t run into the same cultural assumptions about gender and personhood.

Overlapping with the question of AI rights, and possibly a little more timely, is the novella’s anxiety about corporate power. Murderbot is on the run from its manufacturers, who (it transpires) are partly or wholly responsible for the massacre, and for Murderbot’s own inability to remember or find out what happened. That inherently unequal power dynamic is reflected in the plight of the group of techs who hire Murderbot as a security consultant, giving it an excuse to visit the mining facility: the techs’ employer RaviHyral has stolen their intellectual copyright. Though RaviHyral has agreed to give it back, the techs think their lives might be in danger if they go to collect the files. In this world, as, increasingly, in ours, the big corporations hold all the cards – and both AI and human rights are threatened by this. Positioning both the techs and Murderbot as disposable in the eyes of the corporations also has the effect of blurring the line between employer and owner: Murderbot’s manufacturers see it as a thing; RaviHyral, similarly, sees its techs as a resource to be plundered, not people with rights. Again, Wells is raising questions of personhood and who gets to have rights.

So…I think there is interesting conceptual work being done here. But, for me, the paths Wells treads are a little too well-worn: it’s hardly unusual to read about evil corporations, and the question of AI rights is as old as science fiction itself. And the things that are new and unusual aren’t necessarily the themes that are being particularly drawn out in the text.

I would probably read more Murderbot, but I’d have preferred to see Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach (another novella about capitalism and different modes of personhood!) take the Hugo.

Review: Revenant Gun

I voted for Revenant Gun to win the Hugo Best Novel, so don’t expect any sort of balance from this post.

It’s the third book in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, a space opera set in the Hexarchate, an empire whose authoritarian leaders maintain power by enforcing a calendar based on the ritual torture of heretics (read: anyone who refuses to conform or comply). The Hexarchate is in crisis thanks to the actions, in books one and two, of military captain Cheris, host to the resurrected mind of mass murderer and brilliant strategist Shuos Jedao.

In Revenant Gun, Cheris is on a secret mission to recover information about the nastiest of the hexarchs (the six leaders of the Hexarchate), Nirai Kujen. (This involves enlisting the help of a small robot who makes fanvids in its spare time.) Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the resistance, General Brezan, struggles with politics; and Nirai Kujen wakes up a seventeen-year-old amnesiac clone of Jedao to lead the Hexarchate’s forces into battle against the rebels. It’s a little confusing initially, but it’s a book that rewards attention; I think so, anyway.

Why was it my pick for the Hugo? To me, it was simply the most ambitious novel on the ballot, the one that was doing the most work to think transformatively about human society. The world of Machineries of Empire is a far-future one, and it shows: Hexarchate life looks very different from life in the West today. (It’s just occurred to me that this might partly be down to my personal unfamiliarity with Korean culture: I can’t say if the Hexarchate would be more immediately legible to someone more familiar with those inflections.) A small but important part of this – one I also touched on in my review of the preceding book, Raven Stratagem – is the fact that queerness is woven into the Hexarchate’s very structure. Polygamy (i.e. multiple adults of any gender entering into marriage contracts and living as a family unit) is the norm. Most characters are bi or gay. General Brezan is trans.

I’m not saying the text goes into any great detail about family dynamics (it’s more interested in politicking and in the inequalities of power inherent in romantic attraction), but to me it’s immensely valuable that this fictional society is both intensely dystopic and very queer-friendly, and those two things are separate from each other. Like, stories about resistance don’t also have to be stories about queer tragedy? And that’s awesome.

It’s also a novel that’s interested in cross-species cooperation: not only the robot “servitors” Cheris allies with (and into whose society and motivations we get an insight), but also the alien minds powering the Hexarchate’s organic spaceships – minds whose existence nobody seems to acknowledge. Both of these types of consciousness give us a new perspective on the universe, layering Lee’s world, asking us to reflect further on how every outcome of the conflict in the Hexarchate will affect someone in a way the decision-makers didn’t really intend. The main politicking narrative does this too – every choice the rebels make is a bad one for someone. The real work of resistance is a lot harder than I think any of the other Hugo nominees let on; it involves compromise from all sides.

With that in mind, and to tap into an idea that I’ve been thinking about since Worldcon: is Revenant Gun hopepunk? Despite the ritual torture and government-sanctioned genocide that stalks the text, I want to say yes. In this novel, kindness and respect for other thinking minds are active, political choices; not in the sense that they’re cynical moves made to gain more power or influence, but in the sense that they are not easy things to practice, they often come with costs, and yet these characters keep making those choices, in the hope of building a better world.

That better world is not assured by the end of the trilogy, but we feel at least that we are one (contingent, uncertain!) step closer to it. There is yet more work to do – but for Lee and his characters, doing the work, making the impossible choices, is better than the alternative.